Why I Question Issues

by Onyemaechi Ogbunwezeh

He is a friend. He is a priest of some god. I was minding my business. He wasn’t minding his.

“Did you watch Reno Omokri and the priest debate praying with or without images?

“Why should I?

I replied gently.

“I would have imagined you, sitting in that debate, and giving them some lessons of their lives”, he snorted out!

“Well, thanks for thinking so highly of me. But here I have no lessons to teach. I am a human rights guy. Anyone is free to pray or worship a piece of wood or stone or an imaginary creature of his dreams. That is what human beings have done since forever. So, what do I have to teach anyone here?

“Why are you always interrogating peoples` position, Franklyne”?

I swallowed hard. Why has Amadioha decided to rudely intrude on my convenience again today, I thought to myself.

I kept quiet for a few seconds. Then, the spirit took hold of me. I began:

“Fada, I appreciate dialogue and debates. I love words and language. I cherish communication and exchange of ideas. Words are so mighty in human evolution, that many religions, including your own, worship Word as God. You remember, “And the Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us”? You remember also that the Jews bent the knees at a god, who brought all things in being, by nothing but his words. He said, let there be…and there was.

I love words. I love that Reno and the priest went into dialogue, instead of towing the path, which most religions have towed for much of their lives, namely slaughtering anyone, who dared challenge their epistemology.

Their arena of exchange is also instructive. They did it on zoom. It took a pandemic to fully extract the utility of virtual reality. We are now all invited to the virtual village square. The illiterate of today is already the guy, who is to computer savvy in this age.

In ancient Africa, the village square is where the wooden gong summoned every bona fide son and daughter of Africa, to congregate under the shadows of trees that gave his ancestors shade.  Here, our ancestors subpoenaed us to continue that epistemic enterprise of finding answers to pressing existential problems environing us. The Village square was the African House of Commons. There, our masquerades both big and small, come out of their spiritual conclaves, to pay homage to the living, the dead and the unborn. There our interactions were officially lived out. There examined ourselves and interrogated our circumstance. With the huge baobab or other sacred trees giving shade and sanctity, each community cooked the epistemological broths that nourished its being and action.

Today, that village square has undergone rapid transformation, on the heels of our historical encounters with other cultures, and the cross-pollinations which that engendered. Contemporary African village squares congregate today online and on zoom, to see so many young Okonkwos and Amalinzes wrestle for the soul of the beautiful bride that is the African continent. It is not a wrestling to win and cart home a prize. It is an epistemic wrestling to find answers to the predicaments facing the continent on various levels, especially at this point in history. My major problem with Reno´s debate is that it was a practical waste of time.

This is the second time; I am getting such questions from some men of the cloth. And I wish to think aloud on them.

Come with me!

The only caveat here is that, if you don’t like reading, this one is not for you.

I begin.

My mind has always been racked by the question, whether empiricism can ever construct a metaphysics. Or whether there could ever be an epistemology to iconoclasm.

It was not until quite recently that I got a jolt!

Known for speaking out my convictions, against power systems.

Known for ventilating my disdain at the perfidy, treachery and violence; with which power systems enthrone and sustain themselves in being.

Known for the rebellious contempt, in which I hold orthodoxies, which in utter disregard of the fundamental freedoms and rights of the human person, strive to lord systems over the human person, whom Protagoras of old canonized the measure of all things. (Homo Omnia mensura);

I most recently got a question, from a well-meaning minister of some gospel.

Having followed my public interventions for a while, he asked why my convictions, writings, and submissions betray a heart beholden, and sold to iconoclasm and utter disrespect of orthodoxies, institutions, faiths, canons and tenets, which others believe to be the bedrock of their lives and experience. In effect, he asked why I am such a thorough-going iconoclast; ever ready to assault settled orthodoxies with my questions and prodding.

His questions: the way they comported themselves to me, actually bordered on: why have I been following what I consider, the pedestrian footpaths of the most of ancient of thinkers across time.

For him, I caress and romance such radical views of institutional religion and epistemic orthodoxies, which in his mind, gives a lot of human beings across various faith persuasions, their refuge and strength.

This question although startling as it was deep, to my mind betrays an ignorance of the march of the history of thought. It betrays a non-appreciation of the fact that every inch of epistemic gains, which humanity made in the battle against ignorance and superstition, was purchased at the cost of the lives, limbs and blood of men and women, whom their generation and milieu condemned as heretics and either hemlocked, crucified, barbecued, or decapitated out of existence. Should I roll out a list of names? Socrates. Jesus the Nazerene. Giordano Bruno. John the Baptizer. Joan d`Arc.

On the battlefields of ideas, ignorant humanity has always thrown the book at Heretics.

Humanity have always slaughtered those, who questioned the comfortable fraudulence of the status quo. Power systems are configured not only to safeguard itself in being, but to conquer every other factor to guarantee this sustenance. That is why power systems are epistemic imperialisms as well; and for every conquest to be total, it must principally devastate the mental universe of the conquered; making it an ideological no-man’s-land, or tabula rasa, upon which the conqueror and its agents proceed to rewrite or rewire the conceptual genetic blueprint of the conquered, to suit the designs of empire.

This is why every imperialism battles to dethrone local conceptual schemes, usurp the role of local values in the lives of the conquered; lording it over local pedestals of meaning and theories of value, with all the inquisitorial decisiveness and totalitarian recklessness that has underwritten every enterprise of imperialism.[i]

The Greeks committed a cosmic crime against philosophy when they sentenced Socrates to Hemlock, for daring to teach the Athenian youths how to use their heads. Jesus, the itinerant, opinionated preacher, who crisscrossed the Galilean countryside preaching bread and Beatitude, was executed by the colonizing powers of the Roman Empire and hung on a tree at the crossroads of ignominy, to dissuade anyone, who would ever dare to challenge Caesar and/or his friends and mandarins, with any uncomfortable questions or visions.

Prior to Jesus, John the baptizer his cousin, has to lose his head to the daughter of an adulteress, for daring to question why Herod should be fornicating with his brother’s wife. Galileo had to be imprisoned for daring to show the Christian church the poverty of its attempt to impose theological schemes on an astronomical problem. Martin Luther King Jr, had to be shot dead at the noon of his life, for daring to remind racist America that the savageries of their racism, is an obscene insult to all that is good, true and beautiful. Joan d’ arc has to be barbecued out of existence to satisfy ancient citadels of epistemic orthodoxy that brooks no challenge to the patriarchal dominance of men. Many women like her had to be burnt at stake for being witches in subservient genuflection at the altars of medieval ignorance.

Being a skeptic has its price. The price has been hemlock, crucifixion, lynching, and bullets. But we owe human progress to such mindsets. When Aristotle in his Metaphysics Book1, submitted that all men by nature desire to know, he was inadvertently consolidating the fact that we are condemned to curiosity and skepticisms. We are condemned by nature not to take things the way they are. We are condemned to realize that appearance and reality are two different ball-games.

The questions this Minister of some Gospel posed to me, betray an irreconciliation with the fact that we would have been huddled in the outback of primitivity, if we have obeyed the dictates of settled orthodoxies, which frowns at any questions to its epistemic legitimacy. This irreconciliation enjoys the fruits arising out of our successful barraging of reality, with questions, until it yielded its secrets to us, and powered our progress. Although, I thought that the gentleman missed my querying submission on why anyone should seek to justify the fact that human beings, in this time and age, are still so oppressed unto powerlessness, as to still be pining for strength; and so uprooted from their socio-economic matrices, psychosexual integrity, and geo-cultural moorings, as to be constantly in need of refuge. This is central question of our age. Instead of terrorizing my consideration, with pedestrian distractions, as to why I am a questioner, he should be barraging power centers with questions, on why Billions of people are poor, in a world that is as rich as we are today. Why so many are in bondage, in a world that professes infinite love for freedom. Why so many are allowed to die, because they cannot afford to live. Why are we suicidally bent on destroying our earth, betraying the needs and aspirations of future generations?

Over and above these, I have never dismissed what anyone feels. I never will, even when I may not understand some of them. One’s feelings constitute an epistemic universe, which can never comport itself understandingly to another, except through the bridge of language. It is, apologies to Heidegger, another of one’s own-most possibilities. That is to say that no one can feel for me my feelings. Whatever one feels may constitute one’s reality. But transporting it across the epistemic divide to another, is only possible through language in whatever form that takes. I may never adequately approximate the kind of reality that religion induces or creates in the minds of its adherents. That is why it is not only silly to dismiss their feelings, but it is also conceited to presume that one can.

But inasmuch as I respect feelings, I do not trust them. I am forever suspicious, whenever primeval impulses become institutionalized. If I am to paraphrase what Betty White wrote about marriage, I would contend that religion may be a great institution, but I am not yet ready to be institutionalized. I doubt if I ever will. The only thing I would ever love to institutionalize me, is love. Any religion that preaches that, and lives that, is my philosophy. St. Augustine purchased my loyalty here, when he opined: Love and do whatever you like!

In trying to answer his questions:

I replied that I don’t hate religion. But I distrust it. I have not only epistemic grounds to distrust, but also historical and existential ones.

I replied that institutional religions, are power systems. And power systems despite all appearances, are violent institutions.

Crowns of feudal provenance, with the religious systems that lend them legitimacy and credence, are all parts of power systems, which installs, apportions, maintains, and consolidates the privilege of a select assembly, under the pretext of creating order out of the massive Hobbesian morass, which the human society, would otherwise have become.

In history, privilege is incestuous. It is endogamic in its diffusion. It creates and sustains itself. It marries itself. This explains why privileged groups love their exclusivity. Pharaonic royalty never wanted ingress to be granted to outsiders. Instead of that, they were ready to risk genetic malformation than to give outsiders an opportunity, to join them. The rich in their country clubs, are following the same ontological genetics, in their construction of their ambience and the memories that would scaffold and nourish that lifestyle.

This endogamous nature of privilege makes it blind to the plight of the less privileged. Look at the Indian caste system and other caste systems anywhere in the world. They are closed universes. The only relationship regime that could exist between a closed universe and its satellite remains that of exploitation. And exploitation leads to social discontent. That is why privilege in its bid to concentrate power to guarantee its survival, end ups alienating the majority. And this social discontent if allowed to ferment has forever brewed cocktails of toxicities that led to revolutions.

History is replete with examples.

The pre-revolution French nobility were blindsided by the perks of unearned privilege, as to pay any heed to the dilapidations around them; produced, nourished and sustained by a crosspollination of the enormous burden, which their unearned privilege, entrenched mediocrities, and imperial debauchery, inflicted on the hoi-polloi. This privilege was purchased at a price, which hewed obscene furrows and sculptures of pain, on the backs and across the brows of the peasants. That is why citadels of privilege are breweries of discontent. And in this pre 1789 France, discontent was brewed!

There are many reasons why social discontents are ignored to the point of fermentation. Privilege never gives up its perks without a fight. Privilege has forever been a parochial, epistemic imperialism, which creates the Other in a monstrous Gobinean fashion. Privilege is a Blackhole of self-immolatory solipsism, out of which no lights of self-criticism ever escape. Privilege spends its existence, celebrating an orgy of self-congratulatory masturbation, as to pay heed to the non-existing ground under its feet.

Privilege is most times, blind to the world outside its diseased interiors, as to realize that the temperature of the people’s anger has reached a boiling point. Little wonder that Czar Nicholas of Russia never saw the collapse of his rotten Empire, until that night in the cellar of the Tsar’s Palace, when he took a first and last peep at the business end of the guns, which executed him and his family, to push the empire out of existence. The same was the case with the privileged estates of the French Realm. The Sun King was enraptured in his dalliance with his kingship by divine right, to realize that the realm was been burnt under his feet, by the people’s bottled anger. He only realized it when the guillotine decapitated him.

Every change creates a class of privilege. Some earned. Some assumed. Some stolen. Some usurped. Those changes end up creating new power systems or conscripting the old structures they sought to overthrow to guarantee the new privilege they have now grabbed. And most times, the fear of the unknown is needed, due to our epistemic finitude, to keep the masses quiet and at bay.

I distrust every power system, since every power system needs violence, threats of violence or opinions of violence, to sustain it. And violence for me, is forever the waterloo of reason. And for me, iconoclasm represents my contribution in that battle to keep reason on the throne of human interactions. I became an iconoclast when I realized that I love human beings more than I love the systems regulating their lives. I love human beings more than I love power systems. In fact, I cannot love power systems. I tolerate them as necessary evil that must be forever kept on its toes, and on a leash, to minimize its rough edges. I am in this war on the side of reason because not taking a side is betrayal of the best traditions of being human. To be truly human in the world of today is to be a rebel to the status quo.

I took judicial notice of Jean Jacques Rousseau that ‘we are born free but everywhere in chains. That realization was not a source of joy. I know chains. My brothers and sisters were bound up in chains, and transported as human chattel to laboriously fund the wealth of America and Europe. I saw those chains still manacling me today in the stare of every racist, and in the insult of every supremacist. I still see those chains today in the narratives of death employed by American power system in its treatment of my black brothers and sisters. I see those chains still today, in face of every immigrant from Africa trying to cross the Mediterranean to the embrace of a comfortable slavery in Europe. I still see those chains, in the character-assassination of dead black youths, gunned down by a fearful supremacist America. Those chains find echoes in Trayvon Martin murdered and scorned by a justice system that still acts as if black lives is 3/4th human.

Taking judicial notice means that I was born free, but not ready to be everywhere in chains. At least not in the epistemic city of my mind. I will let it roam and wander the universe. I rather found my joy in Jean Paul Sartre’s contention that ‘we are condemned to be free’. And my iconoclasm is my contribution in working for the coming of the kingdom of freedom, since I am condemned to be free. That is the only condemnation that I will ever accept without a fight.  

Why I always interrogate Nigeria and African society and politics!

In the Nigeria context, which we can extrapolate to most of sub-saharan Africa, I believe we need a diffusion of what Peter Bodunrin called sciento-technical rationality across our clime. That is why I interrogate the African predicament. Without that, we are bound to remain where we are. My travels through cultures, has placed me on a pedestal from which I can actually assess the impact of what we have as social pedagogy on our present and our future as a nation, a continent, and a people.

In Germany where I reside at the moment, the first thing a German child learns is the word “Warum”-meaning “why”. A German child asks “Warum” to every statement an adult makes. It gets to the point of excruciating monotony that one ultimately runs out of answers. And the progression of this “warum” is encouraged by the society. I also realized that this trait is not peculiar to German. It is a universal trait in children as they essay to discover their environment, and as their beings unfold. The only thing that the German tradition has done, is what every great culture has done; namely, to encourage this interrogation. Backward societies discourage inquiry and barricade themselves in impenetrable dogma.

Compare that with the Africa of my acquaintance. In the cultural Igbo tradition of my most intimate acquaintance, a child that is insistent in asking a question, is shut down to guarantee the convenience of his elders, who have no answers for him.  He is put in his place with retrograde proverbs like, “I juta isi nwa nkita, I were agba ya mee gini”- meaning, If your question yields you the head of a dog, what are you going to do with its jaw?

That is not only a way of shutting down the natural propensity to wonder, inquiry and search for reasons, which every mind pines for, on its way to navigating existence; it is also the obituary and cemetery of inquiry.

Aristotle in his Metaphysics Book 1 contended that “all men, by nature desire to know” But many cultural traditions nip that progress in the bud. They smother such skeptical facility of human reason, with traditions that are meant to stifle any ventures outside the narrow confines of the culture in search of progress, even though culture in itself is dynamic.

And we can see the results. Our people are some of the most incredulous crowd, one can get anywhere. People still believe that an old woman can turn into a vulture in Lagos. Helen Akpabio’s religious fraudulence convoked a holocaust off children in Akwa Ibom state and environs, where kids are called witches and slaughtered by their parents. People still go to Chris Oyakilohome, Chris Okotie, or Daddy GO and the rest of our gospel hustling crowd, who systematically skim them off their meager resources to fund their avarice and buy private jets. Yet people flock to them every day of the week, believing the superlative nonsense oozing out of their mouths in Jesus name. And the funny thing is, that many university professors join that silly bandwagon, and throw the search for knowledge under the bus, in senile and subservient genuflection at the altars of mammon, aiming to upgrade their stomach infrastructure.

Little wonder that no debate worth its name is being held anywhere in Nigeria today as Nigeria conjugates itself gradually into a failed State. Little wonder the politicians, and parties; the universities and their intellectuals, are all devoid of ideas on how to move the nation forward. Instead, we have intellectuals goading on such inanity, shutting down inquiry even in their own classrooms, whenever a student challenges a precept magisterially handed down to him by a professor, who seems himself as the fons et origo of all knowlege.

Is that not the reason why our tomorrow has been postponed? We embraced faith where our oracles counseled skepticism. And we are paying for it with the massive ignorance of our people.

Is that not a reason to question everything in this firmament?

I question because, in the daily African discourse of this age, skepticism is a proclivity that is sorely needed. We have believed enough nonsense. They have not purchased our consideration with the coins of progress, peace and felicity. We have to come to the table of our socio-political discourse with that suspicion that all power systems lie. And we must be well armed with the courage to question their highfalutin dogmas designed to stifle inquiry. Ours must go back to being a community of inquiry which it has forever been.

Ndiigbo of southern Nigeria have it that, “Na onye ajuju anaghi efu uzo”.

I am not naïve not to know that skepticism is never a coin with which one can purchase superficial friendships. But a skeptic will forever be perfumed in good odour, in the sanctuaries of human progress. They were the drivers blazing our paths out of the smuts of ignorance. They are the ones battling to free us from the epistemic hangovers of human evolutionary infancy. That is a company I desire to forever be in.

So the next time some well-meaning minister of some gospel, banishes me to the hell of his fevered imagination, when he said that the only religion I have is iconoclasm he should know that I am battling to be like a host of ancient greats.

That company is really a great one.

Gwazia ndi yard unu!!!


[i] Ogbunwezeh E.F, Africa and the Pestilence of Imported Gods.

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